- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

This year’s flu vaccine shortage is turning into a public health crisis: Up to ten million more Americans are expected to get the flu this year, according to the group Corporate Wellness. Lost work due to sick days is expected to cost the economy more than $20 billion.

Americans are worried and furious. A recent AP poll found more than half believe their own health or that of a family member will be imperiled due to the vaccine shortage.

Even more maddening are the waiting lines to get the vaccine. We might have expected this from the old Soviet Union, but not from our American health care system.

The Wall Street Journal reports other vital vaccines are also at risk. We could soon face a catastrophic shortage of vaccines to combat measles, chicken pox, tetanus, polio and other life-threatening viruses.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States had 26 vaccine manufacturers. Now we are down to just four. There is now only one vaccine manufacturer for each virus mentioned above.

The explanation is politicians and trial lawyers. Drug companies can’t make profits from producing vaccines any longer because of product liability lawsuits.

In 2002, the entire global vaccine manufacturing industry had roughly $6 billion in sales. But that same year, trial lawyers sought $30 billion in damages against the industry in just one lawsuit. The damages sought by the lawyers were fivefold the entire industry’s net income. And now more than 350 similar lawsuits are pending.

So the trial bar has destroyed a critical medical industry. Congress has the power to fix this crisis.

Why hasn’t it? The reason is the trial lawyers’ massive political clout. Last year, President Bush and Congress tried to shield American manufacturers from frivolous lawsuits and cap damages, but the legislation was squashed by the trial lawyers.

The trial lawyers are the No. 1 special interest contributor to the Democratic Party and to many Republican candidates too, has been the trial lawyers. This year lawyers have donated some $100 million to federal candidates.

Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards have both tried to pin the blame for the vaccine shortage on George Bush’s lapel. In the recent campaign, Mr. Kerry charged: “How can we trust George Bush to protect us from bioterrorist attacks when he can’t even get us a flu vaccine?”

But wait a minute. Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards sided with the trial lawyers and opposed the very legislation that could have averted the influenza vaccine shortage. And guess who are two of the largest recipients of trial lawyer largess in the entire Congress? This year Mr. Kerry has received $21.7 million from lawyers and Mr. Edwards got $11.5 million. These senators and more than 200 others in Congress voted with deep-pocketed lawyers over the health of children and the elderly, who need the flu vaccine most.

Members of Congress will return to Washington a few weeks after the election for a “lame duck” session to complete unfinished legislative business this year. We’d say — and we would venture to guess most Americans would heartily agree — that the most important “unfinished business” is to protect our public health and our access to life saving vaccines.

The first action should be to vote on a Vaccine Liability Protection Act to ensure that the shortage of a vital vaccine never recurs.

Stephen Moore is president of the Club for Growth and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

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